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  • Writer's pictureSusan Carr

Just one glance is all it takes...

It's just a few days before Christmas, and The Husband and I were having dinner at Cracker Barrel. As we shared memories of our favorite gifts from Christmas pasts, I fondly remembered one of mine: a rustic, old, charming whiskey barrel my father gave me to display in my dining room just a few years before he passed away.

My father was never one for elaborate or even personalized gift-giving. He was a sensibility-driven man without much show of emotion. But he loved my dining room. It was themed after Cracker Barrel, with antiques hung on the wall and in display cabinets, pretty much adorning the entire room. Anytime my dad found another antique in his backyard shop he was willing to part with, he gave it to me to display.

But that Christmas, long before I met my now-husband, my dad drove 120 miles from our small town to meet up with his younger brother, whom my dad had asked to find an old whiskey barrel. That year, for Christmas, my dad made an effort to think of me and give me the most elaborate gift he could. And I treasured it.

While I was enjoying this memory, an older gentleman came in, taking a seat across from our table, and I took a glance at him. And that's all it took. His demeanor spoke volumes—head in hands, a deep despondency shadowing him.

As an empath, I couldn't escape the waves of pain and sadness emanating from him that I felt from just one glance.

Despite being a stranger, his emotions gripped me, nearly robbing me of my appetite. I saw my dad in this man. Lonely as he got older, a man who preferred to stay home, sit in a chair, and watch hunting shows. I thought of our last days together and how much we talked and laughed just weeks before he passed away, trying to fit a lifetime of not communicating or connecting emotionally into a very short span of time.

And I thought about my mom and how, most days, she doesn't even remember being married to my dad for over 55 years. And I'm grateful that she doesn't feel any sadness because of this memory loss, but I grieve for her.

Within such a short amount of time sitting next to him, I thought about this man, and I grieved for him. Did he just experience a loss? Is his wife like my mom? When was the last time someone showed him kindness? Or he felt a small glimmer of happiness?

At that moment, I struggled with the urge to reach out, but my introverted nature held me back. Not one to invite a stranger to dine with me, my heart guided me to the next best thing—I anonymously paid for the gentleman's meal. A small gesture, but one driven by the hope that it would give him a momentary peace from whatever he might be struggling with.

This experience of empathy resonated with a recent conversation I had with a new client.

Initially uncertain about continuing our collaboration, I asked to meet with her to let her know I didn't think I was a good fit for her business needs, and that maybe she should seek out someone with a different skill set. This candid conversation revealed a shared understanding, a mutual connection we discovered with each other.

We were able to talk authentically about our individual goals for the future, how we were both new at being entrepreneurs, had common experiences as overwhelmed and fearful single moms, and were trying to make a difference in the world around us. This deeply personal and open conversation allowed me to empathize with her struggles and see that working with her, even with my set of skills, can still provide her with value. We found a common ground to begin looking for new ways of working together on a more mutually beneficial path.

Even when faced with overwhelming emotions, empathy remains a powerful force for good.

As I sat in the restaurant, wrestling with my emotions provoked by a stranger's pain, I could see the beauty in empathy's duality. It connects me to others in deep ways, allowing me to profoundly share in both their joys and sorrows. It provides me with unique understanding, compassion, and connection.

As I walk through these next few days before Christmas, these reflections on empathy really hit home. Among all the festive decorations and holiday cheer, the true spirit of Christmas lies in my ability to extend empathy and understanding to those I'm around, whether every day or by chance encounters. And I'm reminded of yet another thing.

Although widely known for other works, one of my favorites is A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wrote a very successful novella in 1865, Doctor Marigold. A little-known quote from the book is this:

"No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another."

Be it a small gesture in a restaurant or a newfound connection with a client, I think that's what we're all here to do -- lighten the burdens of another.

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